Thursday, July 22, 2010

Testing the Invisible Fence

I've been writing fiction for more than 20 years now, and collecting rejections for nearly as long.

For me, the rejections really started flowing in 1993, when I applied to graduate programs in creative writing. I shipped writing samples off to six schools and somehow received eight rejections...

The University of Arizona just kept sending them, one after another, three in total. And naturally, the arrival of each subsequent envelope would lift my hopes anew: Maybe they changed their minds! Maybe it was a mistake! Or a computer gli

Oh…fine. Whatever.

No, it wasn’t a good feeling, but it was an excellent preparation for a writing career—perhaps even better than attending any of the programs themselves. Since then, I’ve been rejected another 200 times—by magazines, journals, literary agents, and publishers large and small—which averages out to one rejection every month for the last seventeen years.

I’m still not sure what to make of that information, whether I should be proud or ashamed. At the very least, it seems interesting that an utterly unnecessary behavior could persist for so long in the face of such unrelenting negative feedback.

The only thing I've been able to compare it to is a dog and an invisible fence. Most dogs learn within minutes that, if they cross a certain line, they’ll get shocked. But occasionally you’ll find one who just keeps at it, hurling himself into that fence again and again, getting zapped every time. Is it perseverance or stupidity? I have no idea, but after 200 shocks, it probably doesn’t matter.

Old School Rejection
I finished writing my first first novel (everybody has a few, right?) in late-1996 and began submitting it to agents and editors shortly thereafter. The publishing world hadn’t fully accepted e-mail yet, so my query process involved mailing out hard-copy letters with self-addressed envelopes, which would boomerang back to me with rejections two months later.

Thank you for submitting, blah blah blah… These rejections were form letters in the truest sense—crooked, fading, third-generation photocopies of letters that probably hadn’t been re-worded since WWII, no longer bearing any sign that human hands had been involved in their production.

I did get a handful of requests to see my manuscript though, and although these flirtations all ended in rejection as well, those letters were often personalized, offering something meaningful (or at least entertaining) about what had motivated the sender to stomp all over my dreams.

My all-time favorite rejection came from an editor at the SOHO Press. He'd asked to see my novel, The Projectionist, which I was learning fell into the rather unloved "experimental" category. The editor sent back a hand-written card, which I still cherish. (Click the image below to enlarge.)

There are just so many things I love about this rejection. Who ever thought you could use the words oblique, quotidian, and banal in a single sentence? I also love the unflinching certainty of that last line: we could not possibly publish this successfully.

To this day, I’m still not sure if Bryan always intended to include the sentence tacked onto the card’s reverse side, or if that had been an afterthought, something he added only after realizing how harsh his initial assessment sounded. (I almost missed it altogether.)

21st Century Rejection
Then the Internet came along and ruined everything.

These days, no sane editor or agent would ever write a rejection as honest or as helpful as Bryan's because they wouldn’t want to invite a retaliatory cyber-assault from some unbalanced writer (which most of us are at certain times of the night).

So even if someone has all kinds of colorful thoughts about your manuscript, they’ll reject you as politely as possible without saying anything at all. It usually boils down to three words: “Not for me.”

Thankfully, we writers possess a heightened ability to read for subtext, so we know exactly what our rejectors mean anyway. Below are some different types of rejections I collected for Here Comes Your Man, and what each of them meant to me:

The plain vanilla rejection.
You send an e-mail query, and a week or two later, you get a form e-mail back saying something like “Thank you for submitting. I have to be very selective in what I take on. Taste is subjective. Best of luck at finding representation elsewhere.”

Translation: Your book was so mundane in its awfulness that I'm unable to respond with anything but a form e-mail. Nobody else will like your work either, but I’m not going to be the fool who tries to break it to you.

The plain vanilla rejection, extended dance mix.
Similar to the above, except the rejection takes 2-3 months to come back with the same message. That delay speaks volumes though, further implying: I am so busy and important that I’m just getting around to rejecting you now. Frankly, I’m surprised you even bothered!

The no-response rejection.
You send an e-mail query to an agent and spend the next several weeks wondering what they’ll think and when you might hear back. After three months with no reply, you finally realize that they probably glanced at your query the day it arrived, hit delete, and were finished with you forever. Whereas you, even now, are still thinking about them and wondering where it all went wrong...

The instantaneous rejection.
Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a rejection that comes back within hours, or even minutes. And sometimes it’s even personalized!

This is wonderful because it temporarily bats down your suspicion that the publishing industry—and maybe the whole world?—is controlled by androids and that you’re the only real human being left in the universe. This is almost as good as an acceptance. (Or so I imagine...)

Although, I did encounter one ugly variant of the instantaneous rejection: an agency read the first chapter of my book, requested the rest with great interest, and then form-rejected me less than two hours after I'd e-mailed it over. And still I wonder: what was so freaking awful about Chapter 2?

The delayed response rejection.
Occasionally you’ll get a rejection that initially masquerades as a no-response, but is actually something far more sinister. You send a query and don’t hear anything for a while, and then nine months later, when you no longer even remember who this person is, they send you a rejection out of the blue. It’s like having a total stranger run up to you in a crowd and punch you in the stomach.

Translation: I just found your query kicking around in my mailbox, and I was so offended by it that I couldn't help but respond!

Rejected No More!
But I’m done with all that now. Having published Here Comes Your Man in April, I’m enjoying the first rejection-free period of my adult life.

Let me expand that timeline for you, just so we're clear:
  1. I finish college, apply to grad school, and the rejections start rolling in.
  2. This continues for the next seventeen years. While I’m working for three different companies, getting married, buying a house, having a child, and giving my diabetic cat twice-daily insulin injections, the one absolute constant in my life is literary rejection.
  3. April 1, 2010—yes, April Fool’s Day—the rejections stop.
I can't express how much my life has changed, post-rejection. These days, people even e-mail me out of the blue to tell me how much they enjoyed my book. People I don’t even know! No, I’m not "high or something," thank you very much—that’s just how I smile, which is something I do more often now!

And honestly, I wouldn’t be bothered if someone e-mailed me to say how much they hated my book, because that would still mean they’d read it. And that’s really all I ever wanted—to write something and share it, and have people respond to it and maybe even derive a little enjoyment from it.

And then of course to have it adapted into an Academy Award-winning film directed by Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Richard Linklater, Mira Nair, Krzysztof Kieslowski (deceased), Terry Gilliam, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, or Jonathan Demme.

That's next on my To Do list anyway. But I’m confident that there won’t be any rejection involved with that process.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My New Fitness Regime

As a writer/computer geek, aerobic activity has never come naturally to me, but I've long recognized its value in compensating for the things that do come naturally to me…like cookies, brownies, and cake.

I've spent years searching for the ideal fitness program and (fingers crossed)—I may've found it. But before I get into that, here's a summary of the other activities I've tried and my lame excuses for abandoning them all.

It's easy to understand why so many people run—it's cheap, it's effective, and it fills you with a wonderful sense of superiority over everyone who doesn't run. I experimented with running briefly during college, and I immediately saw how I might've become addicted to it, if not for the fact that actually I hated it with every fiber of my being.

I really want to like running, but frankly, running makes itself pretty hard to like, what with all the sweating, and muscle-cramping, and traffic-dodging, plus the incessant pounding on your joints, and even worse, my incessant whining about being tired and wanting to quit. (OMG, the whining…)

Nevertheless, I still have great respect for running as a means to get someplace quickly on foot. If I'm in a hurry, I'll power through my own protests and run like the pigeon-toed wind. And if I happen to be late for something like school or a piano lesson, I might even throw a 55-pound child on my back, just for the challenge.

But when I'm running for running's sake, my motivation evaporates. Try as I might, I've never been able to fool myself into thinking that I'm late for something important. I know exactly where I'm going: home. So why not just turn around now? Or better yet—just never leave?

It's fun to swim at the…Y-M-C-A!
When I was in my mid-twenties, I often swam laps at the YMCA after work. I've always loved swimming, that feeling of cutting weightlessly through the water, almost as if flying. There's something so meditative about it, a kind of quiet I find nowhere else.

But our local YMCA had a smallish pool, and if enough people showed up, we were forced to share lanes. This might work if everyone swam at the same pace, but there was always one person in the water who was more of a "floater" than a "swimmer," someone who also managed to remain oblivious to the fact that the rest of us were constantly fighting to pass them (preferably without colliding or getting kicked in the head), which I guess made the whole experience more exciting, but far less meditative.

I'm sure the floaters were lovely people in other areas of their lives, but I invariably despised them by the end of my swim, and I just as invariably ended up showering beside them, at which point they would talk my ears off in their slow and steady way, because floaters are also notoriously chatty, particularly once you get them naked (which I really don't recommend).

Looking back, I think my YMCA experience just delivered more sharing and togetherness than I was prepared for. Plus, I always left the building with that infernal song stuck in my head.

You know how it goes, right? Sing it with me! (Or just click the picture above to watch the video.)

It's fun to stay at the
Y- M-C-A!
It's fun to stay at the
Y - M - C – A!
They have everything for young men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys!

(In my experience, it takes 23 hours and 55 minutes to rid yourself of "YMCA" once it's lodged in your brain...but let me know how it goes for you.)

As a kid, I always thought tennis was something of a sissy sport. Then around the time I turned 30, I finally realized that I myself was something of a sissy, and I gave tennis a try.

And I loved it. Apparently I was a Labrador retriever in a previous life because, despite my aversion to running, I would happily chase one bouncing ball after another in all kinds of weather until I collapsed from exhaustion. For a brief, magical period—this was post-YMCA and pre-parenthood—I belonged to a tennis club and played there four times a week.

I only had one quibble with the club: their "tennis whites" dress code, which required that every article of clothing worn on the court be at least 50% white (to ensure that we all looked uniformly ridiculous I assume).

I'll never forget the day my partner got hassled by wardrobe security on the way out to play: he'd really pushed the envelope by wearing a striped shirt, and the black stripes appeared to be wider than the white ones. After some passive-aggressive sniping from both sides, he was finally allowed to play in the offending sportswear, and to everyone's surprise, the Earth continued rotating on its axis just as before.

But honestly, the club's dress code wasn't a big deal for me—I derived so much enjoyment from tennis, I would've played in lederhosen if they asked nicely (or even just hinted around a bit). In fact, I have every intention of re-joining the club as soon as possible, which is to say: the very moment that Congress finally extends days to 27 hours and money starts growing on trees.

And Speaking of Trees...
Whew—This is a long post, eh? Congratulations on sticking with me this far!

I'm pleased to say that you've reached the big payoff, where I reveal the fitness regime that has changed my life and given me the (marginally improved) body I have today: staring at lumber in my basement.

Yes, it sounded strange to me too, but you simply cannot argue with the results: improved cardiovascular performance, mood elevation, weight loss, slight hearing loss, and a few minor scrapes and bruises.

I'm not sure if the type of lumber is important—it our case, it's a collection of flooring scraps and decorative molding abandoned in our basement by our house's previous owners (see photo below).

Now, I don't think it's essential that you stand on an elliptical machine and flail all of your limbs as fast as you can while doing your lumber-staring, but that's my personal routine, mostly because our basement is completely packed with crap and the elliptical machine blocks the view of the lumber.

And I'm certain that you don't need to do this in a dim, damp basement so low-ceilinged that, while standing on said elliptical machine, your head just barely fits up between the floor joists, scarcely avoiding the plumbing, wiring, spider webs, and rusty nail-heads. (Not everybody will be lucky enough to make that work, so just do the best you can.)

But for me, the one absolutely essential element of the whole activity is finding some good music on my iPod and cranking it up so loud that it drowns out the sound of my own ragged breathing, the creaking and cracking of my 40-year-old joints, and the voices in my head that scream the whole time, "STOP IT RIGHT NOW I MEAN IT STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT!!!!"

Note: If you do try this with the elliptical machine, do not bend down to scratch your knee while in motion, no matter how much it itches. Those handles may be padded, but you'll still feel it when they hit you in the face, and you'll feel it again when you fall backward off the machine. Just trust me on this.

But wait—there's more!
I know what you're probably thinking—there's no way you could improve on the experience of staring at lumber in your basement. Well, I thought the same thing…until I got an iPad.

With the iPad, I'm no longer forced to stare at lumber in my basement. Now I can stare at absolutely anything—art by my favorite authors, Twinkies, or even bunnies in high chairs. But of course I still choose to stare at lumber because I like it, and because it's the right thing to do.

And the iPad allows me to take the lumber with me everywhere I go. To the beach! To a restaurant! To the theater! Just imagine: lumber lumber lumber 24/7, but without any of the bulkiness or splinters!

Best of all, I can finally share my lumber with everyone I know. For example, our dog Hugo refuses to visit the lumber because he assumes, based on the distressing sounds I emit while exercising, that our basement is some kind of CIA enhanced interrogation / pet grooming area. But now even Hugo can enjoy the benefits of lumber-staring from the safety and comfort of his own crate. Doesn't he look like he's having a fantastic time?

Oh, whatever...

Don't mind Hugo—he's just in a snit about that Labrador retriever crack. Or maybe it was the tennis whites thing?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Writing Spaces

One of my favorite bloggers, The Rejectionist, today posted photos of her writing room and suggested that others do the same. Anyone who knows The Rejectionist (a.k.a. Le R) understands that it's always best to do as she says, so I will. But first, a little background:

Once upon a time, we lived in a tiny house with a tiny office where I did all my writing. Then, we moved to a bigger house with, office of any kind.

Which was an excellent thing, because it liberated me from the notion that I needed a quiet, comfortable space in which to write. And so, in the tradition of so many great writers before me (none of whom I can recall at this time), I've become a wanderer...a kind of literary hobo. In that spirit, here are two of my most frequent loitering spots:

The North End (of our dining room table)
10:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m.

For 22.5 hours of the day, it's an ordinary dining room, albeit a rather small one with with four doors, three windows, and a closet. And then on the dot of 10:30—or earlier, or later, depending on when everybody else goes to bed—I open my laptop and the place goes absolutely bonkers, as the above photo illustrates.

2001 Saab 9-3 Viggen,
Mon-Fri, 12:15 - 12:45 p.m.
There's a certain stigma attached to non-driving activities that occur in vehicles, but I'm well past the point of such shame. On a typical workday, I inhale a sandwich at my desk and then drive off to a quiet, tree-lined street where I can write on my Blackberry for 30 minutes. (I respectfully decline to provide the address lest others try to steal my shady spot.)
Some might be surprised that I'd attempt any substantive writing on a phone, but I've found it to be better than a computer in several important ways: it's always in my pocket, it never crashes, and the web browser is sufficiently horrible that I'm never distracted by Facebook, YouTube, or even a certain someone's blog.